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David Foster Wallace goes short
By David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, 329 pages, $25.95

It’s easy (fashionable?) to blast David Foster Wallace, author of the phone-book-sized novel Infinite Jest, for bloated, self-conscious, self-indulgent prose that calls attention to its own erudition at every swing of the bat. Given his latest collection of short stories, however, the first book of fiction he’s published in five years, it’s even easier to admire Wallace for his strengths. The themes in Oblivion will be familiar to those who know his work: isolation, alienation, loneliness, the inability to know what’s going on in another person’s mind, or to express — even to understand — what’s in one’s own.

But though Wallace’s thematic focus remains, his sentences, which in previous works have sprawled the length of paragraphs, are shorter, and footnotes are all but done away with. The stories in Oblivion have better narratives, are more focused, and, with a few exceptions, are more accessible than those in his previous two fiction collections, Girl with Curious Hair and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Whatever surreal or implausible premise they’re hung on, he’s able to create characters and worlds that are both surprising and inevitable.

"Good Old Neon," for example, is told from a post-suicide point of view: a dissatisfied unnamed yuppie narrator relates what led up to his suicide and what follows in the afterlife. The voice is so consistent, and the writing so precise, that you can roll with sentences like "Dr. Gustafson and I both had a good laugh over this one after we’d both died and were outside linear time." The meta-quality for which Wallace is known is most apparent in this story. "All I’m trying to do," the narrator explains, "is sketch out one little part of what it was like before I died. . . . and yet of course look how much time and English it’s seeming to take even to say it. It’s interesting if you really think about it, how clumsy and laborious it seems to be to convey even the smallest thing. How much time would you even say has passed, so far?" Wallace keeps you aware of the efforts of both reader and storyteller. And here, too, he is most playfully postmodern: the narrator reflects on one David Wallace "idly scanning class photos . . . and seeing my photo." Early Pynchon evinces the same postmodern playfulness. But whereas Pynchon’s playfulness has a distancing irony, Wallace’s characters and situations are more emotionally accessible, and his writing is more personal.

Such is the case with "Incarnations of Burned Children," a three-page assault about, as the title suggests, a child who gets burned. Told from the father’s point of view in rapid, breathless details (and, yes, long sentences), the story sears and sucks the air out of your lungs. A slower, more pervasive horror unfolds in "The Soul Is Not a Smithy," in which a grown man looks back to a day in his fourth-grade class when his substitute teacher had a homicidal breakdown. In a fit of ADD-induced distraction, his student self peers out the window and imagines the grim details of neighbors’ lives. He daydreams about how the mother next door, "an Avon Lady who has never successfully sold even one Avon home product, spends every evening lying splayed and semiconscious on the living room couch, which is missing one of its legs and is propped unsteadily up with a phone book while the father tries to scavenge the right kind of wood to replace the leg." Meanwhile, the teacher at the chalkboard is twitching and kids are puking in fear at their desks. The student is, for the most part, unmindful of what’s going on in front of him. "For it is true that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness," the adult narrator concludes.

Just as the child in "Smithy" knows how many letters are in a sentence but can’t make sense of the words, the marketing analyst in "Mr. Squishy" makes correlations within his focus group — two balding men both have blue eyes — that add up to nothing. "Squishy" is a low point in the collection. Filled with corporate jargon, it, like "Another Pioneer" (a 23-page single-paragraph story about a child prophet), sinks under the weight of the author’s elaborate prose. In these two cases, Wallace is guilty as charged by his critics. Otherwise, he proves himself a master of gut-stirring storytelling, a realist in disguise.

David Foster Wallace appears next Friday, June 25, at 7 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church, 3 Church Street in Harvard Square, as part of the WordsWorth reading series; call (617) 354-5201.

Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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